There was little good news for long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fans in Friday’s sale of the majority share in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
All of the talk at the news conference announcing BCE Inc., and Rogers Communications Inc., are now partners along with Larry Tanenbaum in the parent company of the NHL team that has not won a championship since 1967 was about words like branding, content and distribution.
The Stanley Cup was mentioned but it was almost in passing and only when Nadir Mohamed, the Rogers chief executive officer, or George Cope, his counterpart at BCE, were asked directly about it.
By the way, BCE’s 18-per-cent ownership stake in the Montreal Canadiens will not derail its purchase of 37.5 per cent of MLSE from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. An NHL source indicated a waiver from the league’s board of governors can be obtained that will allow BCE to comply with an NHL bylaw concerning ownership in more than one team. BCE just has to promise it will only have a voice in one team.
Teachers’ was seen correctly as a remote, passive owner interested only in MLSE’s vast profits. Now that BCE and Rogers are in charge there is a rush to embrace them as sports-savvy, demanding owners. Not so fast, I say.
Yes, the Maple Leafs, and the Raptors for that matter, operate in leagues with salary caps. As long as they get enough money to spend to the cap it doesn’t matter who owns them. Well, maybe. In the NBA, teams can spend beyond the cap but the terminally mediocre Raptors have never done it.
Ever since the NHL’s salary cap was introduced in 2005, Teachers let the Leafs spend to the maximum. That’s produced six consecutive finishes out of the playoffs.
On the hockey side, things are getting better. The hiring of Brian Burke (who may now get the control over at least some of the media he seems to crave) as president and general manager of the Leafs three years ago has the team finally in contention for the playoffs. But when you look at the big picture with BCE and Rogers in charge, there’s lots of room for concern.
Owning the Maple Leafs and the Raptors means owning a public trust, not sources for content on your sports and digital networks. And guess what? The present radio and television contracts aren’t even up yet and both companies have already agreed to split the pie, starting with TSN Radio 1050 getting the radio rights next season.
The fans want to know what the owners will do to keep Burke and Raptors counterpart Bryan Colangelo hopping. The addition of Rogers to the MLSE ownership group is not comforting on that count. Its ownership of major-league baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays has been pretty ho-hum. The Jays’ future is unclear, even if club president Paul Beeston insists his team will get the money it needs despite Rogers’ coming cash outlay for the Leafs.
Broadcast ratings remain strong for the Leafs despite their futility, which is why this deal was made. Obviously, BCE and Rogers want playoff success because this will drive ratings and advertising income even higher.
But are they the best owners to serve the fans in this regard? If, for example, the Leafs’ improvement this season proves to be a mirage, how many of the talking heads at TSN and Sportsnet will be willing to take a big bite out of the hand that feeds them?
Before you answer, ask yourself how many times you’ve heard the folks at TSN forcefully criticize the NHL, which counts the network as a broadcast partner, for any of its myriad problems or issues.
The one sign of hope is Tanenbaum. For not exercising his right to buy full control of MLSE, his share of the company was increased to 25 per cent from 20.5 per cent. Legally he has to pay for that but as one insider said, wink, wink, he “got a great deal.” That deal undoubtedly includes the title Chairman For Life, so he will probably get to do things his way.
But then you think about Mohamed’s answer to what is in this for the sports fan: “This is about getting access to live games wherever you go.”
Great, now I can watch mediocre teams on my smart phone.